We’re calling it “This Week in Kindergarten.”
For the next nine months, we will be visiting Stacy Glowacki’s kindergarten class at Washington Elementary School in Janesville. We hope to show readers what has changed since they were kindergartners—in the classroom, on the playground and in educational science, where new developments are changing the way teachers address everything from behavior to learning.
Along the way, we’ll follow students like Liam, who dances through everything, even a trip across the room throw out his breakfast trash; Jonylan, who is destined to be a teacher; Alexis, who does a great imitation of a penguin; Joseph, who does excellent work tracing numbers one to five; and Miah, who told me, very discreetly, to pull up my pants.
My first visit to Glowacki’s class was Monday, Sept. 16, the 10th day of school.
This week’s topic: kindergarten math.
In kindergarten classes across the nation, students start their day by naming the date and the weather and counting the number of days they’ve been in school.
In Stacy Glowacki’s kindergarten class at Washington Elementary School in Janesville, students count the numbers out loud while a special helper adds a slash mark to the dry-erase board tally. Four straight lines plus an angled slash make five. Two sets of five make 10. This is their 10th day of school.
This is kindergarten math, and it goes far beyond rote counting. It is the beginning of numeracy or number sense, and researchers say it is crucial for students’ future success in math.
In Glowacki’s class, the special helper also gets to move a paper straw from one container to another for each day of school. When there are five straws, the helper makes a bundle of five. Two bundles of five make 10. This is their 10th day of school.
Yes, we know we’re repeating ourselves—but that’s the point.
“A lot of them can count to 10, but it doesn’t mean anything to them,” Glowacki said. “We’re trying to recognize the number five, and then we’ll try to write the number five.”
Not just five, of course, but all the numbers, zero to 10.
The classroom is filled with different representations of numbers: dots in frames, the numbers themselves and groups of items.
Much of the learning looks and feels like play. In one lesson, the kids stood in a circle and counted to five, one by one. The student who said “five” had to sit down. They found this really, really funny. Occasionally, a kid would get excited and sit down when his or her number was “four.”
But most of them knew.
“I got a four!” Liam exclaimed before nearly sitting down. It was a great moment of self-restraint for a boy with so much energy.
Because it was the 10th day of school, “Zero the Hero” visited the class while they were out and left a present: an art project/worksheet featuring the number 10. Coloring and the application of stickers ensued.
All these exercises are about numeracy and developing number sense, explained Carmen Rivers, senior lecturer in early childhood education at UW-Whitewater.
“At a 5-year-old level, it’s really about understanding oneness, twoness, fiveness—what does five mean?” Rivers said. “It’s understanding it at a concrete level, as opposed to the abstractness of the representation of five. What does five mean? How does it work? How does it look? How does it feel?”
Think about it: As grown-ups, it seems innate to count by fives, round to fives, know that five is half of 10, calculate tips by using 10% of a bill and then adding half of it.
We understand that fives are not just a symbol, but kindergartners haven’t fully grasped that concept yet.
Students also played a game where they rolled dice and then traced the number that appeared on a worksheet. This exercise helps teach children to subitize, or recognize how many items are present without actually counting them.
“It could be five dots in a circle, it could be five dots in a line. We recognize that it is still five,” Rivers said.
They work on those concrete concepts in kindergarten to build the foundation for studying more abstract math, she said.
“Getting this early, understanding fourness, fiveness, is foundational,” Rivers said. “It all scaffolds from there.”